Why online games turn players into psychopaths

[From Wired, where the story includes more images and two videos. Key quote: “Are our actions in a virtual world tantamount to imagining those things we could do in real life but never would? Or are we merely behaving as we would in real life if there were no consequences for our actions?”]

Screenshot from Rust

[Image: Screenshot from Rust by Cat-Slaeder via Steam Community]

Why Online Games Turn Players Into Psychopaths

By Ryan Rigney

Three men stand on a deserted street, their hands in the air. One wears a green T-shirt and a motorcycle helmet. The others wear bright yellow down jackets. They are surrounded by four armed men.

“Gentlemen,” a man called Klyka says, “we are going to play a very interesting game.”

He commands the hostages to drop their axes, then continues.

“This is DayZ,” he says. “Someone always has to die when players meet. But we’re going to make this interesting.”

He directs the men in yellow to sit cross-legged, 20 yards from each other, axes midway between them. There can be only one yellow jacket in this group, he says. The two men consider what he says. Klyka goes on. “When I shoot in the air you guys will run for your axes, and you’ll try to grab them.” The last man standing, he says, will be released.

DayZ is an online PC game set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Surviving the undead hordes is difficult, but at least the zombies are predictable. The bigger threat comes from your fellow players, who are just as likely to help you as kill you.

Dying in DayZ isn’t like dying in other videogames. The game, developed by Bohemia Interactive, has “configured death with an extreme level of consequentiality not found in other online first-person-shooters,” researchers at the University of Melbourne wrote last year. “Unlike other FPS games, in which death is a minor 2-10 second setback before rematerialization, death in DayZ involves the permanent death of this character, and loss of all items and advancement.”

In other words, death is about as real as it can be in a digital realm. You die, and it’s literally game over. This, the authors write, has the effect of “intensifying social interactions, raising a player’s perceived level of investment and invoking moral dilemmas.” More than that, though, it raises an interesting question about how and why we behave as we do in a game like DayZ, and what that says about us.

Klyka doesn’t appear the slightest bit morally distraught. He’s quite obviously having fun. Having laid out the rules for his deadly game, he begins counting down. Three. Two. One.


One yellow jacket sprints toward his axe. The other turns and sprints down the road. One of Klyka’s men—who had been filming the scene for YouTube—calmly lowers his camera, raises his rifle and peers through the scope. He fires a single shot to the man’s head. Klyka and his crew laugh.

If this were real, you’d think they were psychopaths. And what about DayZ, and games like it, makes them behave as if they are?

Alone and Naked

DayZ and a similar open world, online survival game called Rust are among the best-selling games on Steam this year. Each drops players, unarmed and alone, into a dangerous world and challenges them to make their way in a harsh and occasionally cruel environment.

What’s emerged from this are online worlds in which the greatest threat isn’t the enemies created by the game designers, but the violent and unpredictable people playing the game alongside you. I experienced this first hand playing Rust with a friend, who revealed a part of himself I’d never known existed.

In Rust, players start out naked and alone in the wilderness. They must fashion weapons from rocks, kill animals to eat and scavenge supplies to survive. The opening chapter of the game is terrifying, because there is nothing to protect you from players who’ve long since built forts and amassed caches of supplies, armor and weapons.

My friend JB and I soon built what we believed to be an impenetrable fortress around the remnants of an abandoned garage. We had a roaring fire with plenty of food, weapons, and vast stores of supplies. Things were going well, until one night we heard voices outside.

I walked into the living room to find two shirtless and armed men rifling our supplies. One of them spotted me and yelled something unintelligible. I pulled out my pistol shot the nearest man one twice. I was a moment too late, however, and they gunned me down. JB unleashed an entire clip, but still went down. The bandits escaped with everything we owned, and left the same way they’d entered: through a hole in the back wall I’d neglected to patch up.

We started over with new characters. A few hours later, while hunting deer, I was startled to see a naked man sprint past. He froze at the site of my bow and protective armor.

“I’m friendly! Friendly!” shouted a female voice. (Rust, currently in alpha state, only has male character models at the moment.)

“It’s okay, I’m friendly too,” I said. “Do you need anything?”

She paused. No, she said, backing away. I wished her luck and resumed my hunt. She returned a minute later. “Do you have any food?” she asked. “I’m starving.” I tossed her some baked chicken. She offered some wood in return.

“You keep that,” I said. “You’re going to need it to build a shelter.”

“No, it’s okay,” she said. “Fair’s fair.”

Before I could reply, I saw someone running up behind her. It was JB. I was about to tell him everything was OK when he started shooting. He hit her twice in the back. She ran away and died minutes later. JB was laughing. Laughing.

“Why’d you do that?” I asked. I’ve known JB since were six years old. I’ve never seen him harm anyone.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “It was funny.”

Our perspectives on that event couldn’t have been more different. In my mind, I was interacting with a real person who needed help, while JB just saw her as just another target in an elaborate shooting gallery.

Of course, I know JB wouldn’t have gunned down a stranger in real life. But it got me thinking about people who would.

The Psychopath Next Door

In layman’s terms, a psychopath is someone without a conscience, says Dr. Adam Perkins, an expert in personality disorders who lectures at King’s College London. Such people have little to no capacity for empathy and can do “the kinds of things you could do, but you’d be bothered by guilt if you did so.”

Say, for instance, you’re shopping and see a woman leave her purse on the counter. You could easily take it without getting caught. If you’re a member of the 1 percent of the population that Perkins says is psychopathic, you just might do it—and sleep like a baby afterward.

“Psychopaths will do things without any compunction, any internal guilt,” Perkins says. “It’s a cognitive style that places little or no value on fair treatment of others.”

This isn’t to say psychopaths are by definition more violent than the rest of us. Violence wouldn’t bother a psychopath, Perkins says, but they might have another incentive to avoid violence: the consequences of getting caught. Most psychopaths are logical people, he says, and understand that actions bring consequences. The threat of repercussions—say, for example, prison—might keep them from acting out.

Such disincentives do not exist in virtual worlds. Absent a sense of empathy, you’re free to rob and kill at will. What we do with this reveals something about us. Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, says imagining ourselves doing something horrible is a way to see ourselves in a new light.

“One of the ways we keep ourselves moral is to imagine the terrible things we could do, but then don’t do,” Ronson says. “You stand on a train platform and think, ‘I could push that person in front of the train.’ That thought pops into your head, and it doesn’t make you a lunatic. It makes you a good person, because what you’re actually saying is, ‘Oh my god, I’m capable of doing a terrible thing, but I would never actually do it.’”

As I’m talking to Ronson on the phone, I look out the window and see an enormous truck parked across two spaces. I imagine myself using a tire iron to smash the windows, the taillights, and the headlights before scraping the Confederate flag sticker off of it.

I find myself agreeing with Ronson. Any time I’ve put myself in a situation, real or imaginary, beyond my moral limits, it allows me to clearly see where those limits lie. It’s therapeutic, and reassuring.

But we’re still left with the big question: Are our actions in a virtual world tantamount to imagining those things we could do in real life but never would? Or are we merely behaving as we would in real life if there were no consequences for our actions?

I decided to ask Klyka.

The Man Behind the Monster

Klyka is a 28-year-old German named Phillipp Kalle. He says players in games like DayZ and Rust devise elaborate ways to abuse others because the open-ended nature of these games leaves them bored if they don’t create their own goals.

“Normally, when you log into a game, the game communicates its rules to you,” Kalle says. “If we both jump onto a Call of Duty server, the rules are there. It’s agreed that we’re going to kill each other. DayZ doesn’t give you goals, it just gives you tools.”

Thus, Kalle and his friends create their own fun. That might mean manipulating, abusing or even killing other players one day and helping them the next. Moments before setting up the yellow-jacket death match, Kalle says, his group helped a rookie player.

“I actually gave him [a] pistol with some ammo and some food and sent him on his way,” Kalle says.

After the yellow jacket death match video went viral, someone claiming to be the survivor posted an AMA on Reddit. Kalle sent him a friendly message, thanking him for being such a good sport about it all.

“No hard feelings,” the survivor wrote back. “You were really cool.”

It might be the case that defaulting to killing people is a good strategy in these games. Perhaps the only way to play them successfully is to approach it like a paranoid mafia don, striking down all who don’t approach on bended knee. It’s one way to ensure your own survival. Someone always has to die when players meet.

But if that’s your rationale, you’d simply shoot everyone on sight. What’s the point behind drawing it out in a death match, like Klyka’s elaborate game? For a game is exactly what it was, complete with fabulous prizes. After killing the yellow jacket who attempted to flee, one of Klyka’s cronies approached the survivor and told him to choose his victory prize: saline, a bag of rice, or a box of bandages. The survivor chooses the rice.

One of the men drops the bag at his feet. And then Klyka orders his men to dance.

When No One Is Watching

When I first entered the world of Rust, I spawned atop a mountain surrounded by miles of valley. The sun was dropping out of sight behind a peak in the distance. Soon it would be dark.

Far away I saw a building among the trees. I could see light. I approached carrying only a rock. As I drew near, I could see people through cracks in the wall. I called out, asking for help, and heard two men murmur to each other. One finally opened the door.

They were naked, each of them clutching a rock. They looked more like animals than people. Behind them, I could see a fireplace in which meat was cooking, and several chests I was sure held supplies.

“Hey man,” the guy nearest the door said. “What’s up?”

And then, I was overtaken by a sudden and forceful thought: I want what they have, and I will take it. I lifted my rock and smashed in the skull of the man nearest the door. I trampled his corpse and rushed toward his friend, who was now holding a pistol.

Firelight flickered, casting shadows on the wall we fought. He shot me once, twice. I ran away bleeding and was almost to the door when he shot me a third time, then a fourth.

My screen went black.

Back in the real world, on my couch in Mississippi, my adrenaline was pumping. I was overwhelmed by two emotions: disappointment at my failure to rob the men, and catharsis from beating a man to death.

That’s when I realized that my moral code in this virtual world was highly situational. When I was safe, clothed, and armed, my instinct was to help the girl that JB shot. When I was naked and alone, I felt no qualms about butchering a guy with a rock if I thought it would help me survive. What did I have to lose? It’s a lot harder to maintain one’s morals when you’re at the bottom of the food chain. I wondered if that rule would also apply if I were to lose everything in real life.

The screen flickered back on. I was reborn, standing naked in an empty field, holding only a rock. Not far away I saw a man gathering wood, his back to me. I crept toward him through the grass. He didn’t hear me slinking closer.

I thought of the words of John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, who once said that the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.

I raised my rock above my head.


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